First Principles

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Thomas Jefferson, in his first inaugural speech, listed what he called "the essential principles of our government and consequently those which ought to shape its administration."

Rather than quote him verbatim, I’m going to list those principles so we can see how far we have strayed from our beginnings.

The first was equal and exact justice to all men, whatever their state or persuasion, religious or political. This is a principle that needs working on every single day. Today, justice is too often for sale. That is a problem the legal profession needs to work on.

The second principle is peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations — entangling alliances with none. Misname it "isolationism" all you want, but it is the wisest policy advocated by the wisest of our Founding Fathers.

The third was support of the state governments in all their rights as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest protection against anti-republican tendencies. This one has been largely abandoned so that many people today consider the states to be merely administrative units of the federal government. This should not be allowed to continue. It used to be considered axiomatic that the best government was the government closest to the people. Federal encroachment on states is one of our biggest problems.

The fourth was preservation of the general government in its whole constitutional vigor as the sheet anchor of peace at home and safety abroad. The original purpose of the constitutional government was to represent all the states in such things as foreign policy and war while, as James Madison put it, in time of peace doing only about 5 percent of the governing. Here again, we have strayed far.

The fifth he described as a jealous care of the rights of election by the people. As with all of these principles, this one is never complete, as we can see by occasional election fraud and by the tendency of some to deny the people an opportunity to vote on key issues.

The sixth is absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority. He said this was the vital principle of republics to which there was no appeal but to force. That’s so true. As much as it pains me to admit it, the only time we didn’t follow that principle resulted in a war that cost 600,000 Americans their lives. The majority elected Abraham Lincoln, and my Southern ancestors refused to acquiesce.

Another principle was a well-disciplined militia, something we have entirely abandoned.

The supremacy of the civil over the military was No. 8. This one we’ve observed. Next comes one we have not observed — economy in the public expense and the honest payment of our debts.

Then come the encouragement of agriculture and commerce; the diffusion of information and the arraignment of all abuses at the bar of reason; freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of the person under habeas corpus; and trial by juries impartially selected. Habeas corpus and trial by juries are being denied people whom the Bush administration designates as "enemy combatants," though no official state of war exists between us and any nation.

Notice, too, how often these days that government wishes to substitute coercion for diffusion of information. Too often the government prefers to mandate — vaccinations, for example — rather than educate people about their benefits. Jefferson said that should we wander from these principles in error or alarm, we should retrace our steps to regain the road that leads to peace, liberty and safety.

He was a hell of a lot smarter than today’s politicians.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.

© 2007 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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